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Publish, don't perish – Instalment 23

Writing a book

So, you've been writing for the library literature, blogging regularly, or presenting at library conferences far and wide, and it seems time to take the next step: writing a book. Just like editors at library journals, acquisitions editors at library-related publishers are always on the lookout for new voices and new ideas.

If you haven't written for publication before, though, you may wish to begin with shorter material. Start by writing an article, publishing a blog, or volunteering to put together your library's newsletter. See how you do with deadlines and what kind of reaction you get to your work. Writing shorter pieces (or giving presentations) also gives you a body of writing on which to draw when looking for book ideas or material.

If, on the other hand, an editor sees something in your shorter pieces and approaches you about a book project, consider the idea seriously. The fact that someone approached you first means that the larger world thinks you are ready to tackle a bigger work.

Your big idea

Your first step in any book project is to determine whether your idea is big enough to carry an entire book manuscript, or whether it fits better into a shorter article-length format. Be honest with yourself here; no matter how much you may want to publish a book, you need to pick the option that best fits your writing style and subject. Some authors appreciate the length of a book project, which allows them the room to expand on their ideas. Others may find that their topics and writing lend themselves to more concise formats.

Test whether your idea might merit an entire book by jotting down an outline or rough table of contents, including your ideas about what might be included in each chapter. Only have three potential chapters? Make them into article headings and pursue that approach instead. Can't come up with logical chapter divisions? Maybe your topic needs a bit more thought.

Next, think about whether your idea is interesting enough to carry an entire book manuscript. Readers who may be receptive while reading a shorter work may find their attention wandering from a longer one, so think about whether your topic can retain people's interest throughout.

Last, think about whether your idea is marketable enough to carry an entire book manuscript. Unlike journal articles, which appear in the context of a larger issue, your book must appeal to readers entirely on its own merit. Have a potential audience in mind – the bigger, the better – then try to think of secondary markets your work might also reach.

This may all seem like a lot of work, but it will all be useful when you hit the book proposal stage!

Choosing a publisher

The variety of library publishers is both a blessing and a curse; allowing you freedom of choice (and options if your first choice turns you down), yet adding complexity to your decision-making process.

Picking the right publisher for your project is essential. You will be working with these people for quite a long time. They will be the ones marketing your work, putting it out in a timely manner and in an attractive format. If you know anyone who has written for a library press, ask them their opinion – most librarian authors will be quite candid about their experiences with a given publisher.

Take some time to look at current titles from several library publishers. What do you like (or dislike) about the format, pricing, subjects of each? Where does your idea best seem to fit? In some cases, your work might fit naturally into a publisher's existing series, or you may seek out one that publishes "how-to" books, or academic works, or reference materials.

Publishers in the library field include:

You should be able to find author information and proposal guidelines on each publisher's website.

Creating a proposal

Each publisher has its own proposal guidelines, but most ask prospective authors to include similar elements. They'll want to know, for example:

  • What will the title cover? What will it be about, and what are the major points it will cover? Can you easily summarize its contents?
  • What makes it marketable? What is unique about this work that will attract readers? What is the intended audience, and how big is the potential audience? Do you have any particular "ins" that will help you sell the work?
  • Why are you the person to write it? What are your qualifications for writing this title? What previous experience have you had with its subject? Have you previously published shorter pieces on the topic?
  • What else is out there on the subject – how does your book differ? If others have covered your topic, what unique factors will compel people to purchase your title? If others have not covered your topic, is there a reason why? Is your book more up to date, more comprehensive, more focused on an overlooked aspect of a given subject? Does it directly compete with or complement the existing literature?

It may take from several weeks to several months for you to hear back from an editor. If the response is positive, your editor might suggest some changes or additions to your initial proposal. If the response is negative, think about whether you want to approach another publisher.

The writing process

Creating a book manuscript requires a major commitment of time and effort, generally from six months to over a year. Every author approaches this process differently. Some start from page one and write straight through, while others write bits and pieces as inspiration strikes. Some work from a detailed outline, while others may work from scribbled notes – or keep their ideas in their head until committing them to paper. Still others devote the first few months to research, then sit down to write. Find the method that works best for you.

If you tend to procrastinate, realize that a book project is a bit too big to tackle at the last minute. You will want to leave yourself time to edit your work – and then to edit it again! Have at least one other person read the entire title; you are often too close to your own work to see where it might need revision or clarification.

The publishing process

It can take 6-12 months from the time you turn in an acceptable manuscript to seeing your finished book in print. You can heave one major sigh of relief when you finish your draft, but your job is far from done.

Each publishing house works on its own schedule, but will follow similar major steps. When your publisher receives your manuscript, they will review and edit it for content, making sure the draft is acceptable and ready for publication. Your work will then generally be assigned to a copy editor, who will check it for grammar, spelling and so on, before your edited manuscript moves on to the design stage. Your book will be designed and laid out, reviewed again, and then a galley will be sent to you for your review and for you to answer any last-minute questions. (This is not the time to make major changes, but to make sure that material going to print is accurate and consistent.) After a final proofreading, your book will be indexed and sent to a printer, who generally takes one to two months to produce and ship your finished book.

While writing a book requires a major commitment, the end result can be worth all the effort. (After all, how many librarians can look themselves up in WorldCat?)